By Luke Sehmer

Much has been written about the rise of connected mobile devices (tablets and smartphones), their now seemingly ubiquitous ownership and how brands have responded to target and engage consumers online. According to the latest figures from Ofcom, in the UK, Smartphones overtake laptops as UK internet users’ number one device, with 33% of internet users considering their smartphone to be the most important device for getting online, compared to 30% who are still prefer their laptop[1].

While almost all age-groups are more likely than previously to use tablets to go online, use by those aged 35-64 has doubled, while use by 65-74s has trebled; from 5% to 17%. Six in ten UK adults (62%) now use a smartphone, an increase from 54% in 2012. This increase in smartphone use is driven by 25-34s and 45-54s, and those aged 65-74 are almost twice as likely to use a smartphone now compared to 2012 (20% vs. 12%)[2]. And a recent study conducted by advertising buyer OMD found that the average Brit shifts their attention between their smartphones, tablets, and laptops a staggering 21 times in one hour[3].

What does this mean for brands when researching customers?

How a brand carries out research can be an important part of the customer experience. If people are increasingly likely to go online via a mobile device, and also want the flexibility of switching across different platforms to access the internet, it makes sense for online research to follow.

Previous research in this space has shown that while the majority of surveys are started on desktop computers, mobile penetration continues to grow with research studies being initiated on both smartphones and tablets. This trend away from taking surveys on a desktop, and towards completion on mobile devices is certain to continue.

But are there any significant compromises from taking this step? If researchers let research participants complete a survey on their preferred device, what does this mean in terms of ensuring a representative sample and the quality of data?

Our team at Research Now recently carried out a study of 8,000 people across the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy to try to find out. The research tested whether there were significant differences in the responses to a questionnaire, depending upon the device used. There are very obvious differences that could come into play: screen size and orientation, selection interface, typing interface, and the quality of internet/ data connection. What we wanted to examine was whether the differences between devices have a direct impact on how participants interact with them, how they interact with a survey and then, what conclusions can be made.

Should survey features vary according to device?

Among other things, the study examined the impact of sliding scale length, question length, and the number of open ended questions. The key objective was to understand the impact the device used to answer a survey has on the data collected, and to establish guidelines to minimise data inconsistencies.

Scale questions ask participants to rank something on a scale, with a typical question being “to what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?”, and then listing them accordingly with a scale below.

The results of this study suggest that device screen size does not seem to have an impact on responses to different scale lengths. However, the way in which the scale is presented does. We looked at scale questions presented with radio buttons, sliders or grid bars. Answers provided using a slider exhibited a greater number of significant differences across devices, whist grid bars and radio buttons achieved greater consistency across device.

As might be expected, participants answering an open ended question via desktop will type in longer answers than those on mobile devices, but the difference isn’t as significant as one might think. However, because drop-out rates for those taking part on a mobile are twice those on a desktop, we recommend keeping open-ended questions to a maximum of three. Answering these questions is time consuming, and survey length should be kept to a minimum.

Device agnostic research brings benefits

Overall, our study found that the quality of research data is not adversely affected by any one device. This then opens up the possibility for brands to get robust and actionable consumer insights from the device that suits the respondent best.

Although there can be some inconsistencies in a cross device survey, the differences need not be significant. If the survey is designed in such a way as to work effectively on the smaller format of a smartphone, interestingly when study participants assessed the ease of completion, there was little variation across devices – 81% using smartphones gave it a high rating for being easy to complete versus 84% of tablet users and 86% of PC users. However, the level of interest varied more – 54% of smartphone users said that the survey rated highly for interest, versus 67% on tablets and 69% on PC.

At the same time, conducting research across a variety of devices makes it easier to ensure that all demographics can take part. Excluding tablets, mobiles or PCs from your research means that you exclude elements of the population and you won’t gain a full understanding of the whole market you want to reach. By going device agnostic, brands have a better chance to get a better understanding of their audiences – producing better insights, and making better business decisions as a result.

[1] http://media.ofcom.org.uk/news/2015/cmr-uk-2015/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/aug/06/smartphones-most-popular-way-to-browse-internet-ofcom?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail

[3] http://www.brandrepublic.com/article/people-swap-devices-21-times-hour-says-omd/

Luke Sehmer is Senior Research Director at Research Now. 

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